“He was a black skin boy. So he was born to die,” goes Bob Dylan’s song, The Death of Emmett Till. The lyrics are as timely today as when they were first written and performed because “black skin” remains a threat and the cause of death of far too many in the United States and the world. The song relates the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youngster from Chicago, who was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi on August 28, 1955, by two white men because, supposedly, he flirted with a white woman.
Mamie, Emmett’s mother, insisted on a public funeral in Chicago with an open casket for everyone to view the brutality of racism that completely disfigured and mutilated the face of her beautiful boy. The motionless body was Emmett’s but the open casket is America’s well-documented lynching history, racism, total otherisation and sub-humanness of African Americans.
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America’s soul continues to be burdened by the countless motionless African American bodies that pile up daily in inner city streets, alleyways and police shoot-outs. Not to leave behind the walking living bodies made motionless and numbed into a lifeless existence through racism: filling prisons, shattering dreams and creating permanent modern “civilised” slavery.
Black life is expendable?
The Michael Brown verdict is yet another reminder, if any was still needed, that racism was and always will be America’s open casket through which African American suffering and sub-humanness is on constant display. Once again, the nation and the world are numbed at the no-guilty verdict and the closing of America’s moral casket on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Michael Brown, a young African American whose body was riddled with America’s bullets of racism and indifference to Black suffering.
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How to be shocked when we are sick and tired of being shocked, as the deaths of blacks is the daily norm and normalised in the nation’s consciousness? Not guilty has been etched with knives and millions of racism’s bullet holes into the nation’s collective non-being ascription to African Americans.
This is further ensconced with our differentiated just-us legal system coloured by race and white supremacy. A black life is expendable, worthless and guilty for being visibly black; a mere biological material, a divine error and permanent sub-humanness.
Guilty for walking while black, guilty for being black, guilty for daring to speak, sing and dance while black, and guilty for having the audacity to want to be black. Walking, driving, working, and living as black are a dangerous and life-threatening endeavour in today’s America and indeed it has always been the case for “People of Colour” since Christopher Columbus landed on these shores.
America’s open casket to the world is its racism that has been institutionalised and commodified into every part of the society from the police force, political order, court system, corporate structure, media and global relations. Some are quick to point to gains made by African Americans since the civil rights movement; and, indeed we can point to these noticeable advancements including the first black president in the White House.
However, statistical data provides a different picture of a nation that is separate and profoundly unequal. African American unemployment and underemployment is almost twice as that of whites. Further, data shows that “by age 17, the average black student is four years behind the average white student; black 12th graders score lower than white 8th graders in reading, math, US history and geography”.
Michael Brown’s cause of death is America’s racism, the police officer was the weapon and the grand jury is the clean up crew.
What is most disturbing is that incarceration rates for black American men stands at 4,347 per 100,000 which is almost 6.5 times the national average of 707 per 100,000. Often US politicians and media talking heads spend countless hours speaking on prison-related human rights abuses abroad while under their noses a prison industrial complex is humming efficiently and their 401K might be invested in parts of it and providing a healthy return. More critically, African American household net worth stands at $4,995 compared to $97,000 for whites, which is slightly ahead of an adult living under occupation in Palestine, and a poverty rate of 27.4 percent twice the national average.
In The National Center for Victims of Crime study, a troubling picture for African American young males and crime emerges concluding that “black youth are three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect, three times more likely to be victims of robbery, and five times more likely to be victims of homicide. In fact, homicide is the leading cause of death among African American youth ages 15 to 24″.
While the data shows blacks are victims of crime nevertheless, the approach by the government to their community adds insult to injury by treating them collectively as a criminal class by deploying police force to control rather than to serve and provide protection for the trans-historically abused community.
Racism is America’s open casket to the world and the murder of Michael Brown is the latest episode in a too familiar story dating back to the founding of the country. Emmett Till’s casket remains open today for the underlying causes that murdered him are still around and unchanged. Michael Brown’s cause of death is America’s racism, the police officer was the weapon and the grand jury is the clean up crew. Justice for African Americans remains an illusion since America fails to account for racism, the scars and the real bullets it leaves behind.
Hatem Bazian is coeditor and founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal and director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at Berkeley University.